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Thu, Feb 17, 2005 - Page 12 News List

Regulators start to investigate safety of Lexus' SUVs

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DETROIT

Federal regulators have opened a safety investigation into the best-selling vehicle from Toyota Motor Corp's Lexus division, the RX330 sport utility vehicle, after receiving complaints about failures in its power brakes.

Bill Ussery, a Lexus spokesman, said the company was aware of the brake problem and issued a technical service bulletin to its dealers in September. But the company has not notified customers or recalled the vehicle because it says it does not think the problem is widespread and no injuries have been linked to it.

The government's inquiry was prompted by complaints from 10 Lexus owners who told the agency of brake problems, with one saying, "My brakes went completely out while traveling down a highway at 95kph."

Complaints have also appeared recently on Internet message boards. Several customers said they had been told by Lexus mechanics that the problem was well known but could take weeks to fix because not enough parts were available.

"We saw enough of a pattern in the complaints coming in that we felt it justified a little closer look," said Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is conducting the inquiry. The investigation is in a preliminary phase. It will become more serious if enough evidence of a potential defect is discovered.

The problem involves the SUV's brake booster, a critical part that makes power brakes work. Without a brake booster, brakes are still operable but require a driver to push down with considerable force.

"The brakes still stop the vehicle, but it's very unusual and surprising," Ussery said. He said Lexus needed to review the government's consumer complaints "to determine if further action is warranted."

Last year, the RX330 became Lexus' first vehicle to sell more than 100,000 units in the US. Ussery said the company thought the problem was restricted to vehicles that were among the 48,000 of last year's model RX330s produced at a plant in Cambridge, Ontario, as opposed to models made in Japan. He also said the problem was thought to occur in cold weather.

He said the technical service bulletin sent to dealers recommended replacing the vehicle's brake booster if the problem occurred.

"If you're missing a booster system, it means that for smaller people, for women, it's really hard to stop the vehicle," said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group. "Companies are much smarter if they notify people quickly, not only for safety but for public relations."

Nancy Rosin, 63, of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey, said her RX330 was her fourth Lexus but would probably be her last. The power brakes on her SUV failed when her son was backing out of a driveway in Vermont in December, she said, and he had to jam down on the brakes to stop.

Rosin was not among the customers who complained to regulators.

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